First of all, a big “Thank you!” to everyone who read, linked to, and commented on my post about the evolution of thought surrounding human evolution. I didn’t expect such an overwhelmingly positive reaction at all, and following Julia’s suggestion, I think I may try to add to it/polish it up a bit and submit it to a review journal like Historical Biology or Biological Reviews. I don’t know where else I would send it in, but I’d just be happy to be published, and even if I don’t, it’s good practice.
Although Saturday was mostly devoted to writing, I also stopped by my old house to see my family and my mom gave me one of the best gifts I can ask for; a Barnes & Noble gift card. I prefer to buy my books used (they’re cheaper and you’re helping small businesses, and many books I want are rare and not to be find in the big stores), but I have to admit it was nice to get my hands on something new. In fact, my wife and I were able to take advantage of a buy 2 get 1 free deal; She got Stardust (which we also saw Friday; she liked it, I didn’t), and I got Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, our “joint choice” being Simon Singh’s The Big Bang.
I also started reading Chris Beard’s Hunt for the Dawn Monkey again on Saturday, as I didn’t finish it when I last picked it up last year. It really is a great book, and I can’t recommend it enough. Books that I previously had ordered also showed up on Saturday, and I was able to read Don Stap’s Birdsong: A Natural History from cover-to-cover yesterday (it’s only 244 pages long). Stap’s book is absolutely wonderful, and while it might disappoint some in not being an overview of all birdsong, it’s a great introduction not only to how and why birds sing, but to how science works as well. Stap follows a few scientists in the book, but most of the attention is devoted to the research of Donald Kroodsma, from his studies of chickadees on Martha’s Vineyard to his trials and tribulations in academia to his quest to show that the Three-Wattled Bellbird, contrary to popular opinion, is actually learning it’s distinctive song.
Outside of being very well-written and engaging, the book make some very important points. Although lab work gets a lot of prestige and is attributed much importance, when you’re working with animals (and especially their behavior) there is no substitute for observation in the wild. Ecology might be frowned upon or deemed unnecessary because it doesn’t directly contribute as much as lab-based sciences, but if you really want to understand nature you need to get out in it, not bring it home to a lab. This isn’t to say that nothing can be gleaned from lab work, but what happens in a lab setting should be compared to what the animals are actually doing in the wild to see what matches at what doesn’t. Case in point, lab studies suggested that songbirds learned their songs from their fathers, and this was the song that they kept for the rest of their lives. If kept alone or with only other growing birds, the birds still sang, but their songs were not as refined as those who had heard adult birds singing. The idea that birds learned their songs from their fathers stuck, at least until it was shown that in the wild, songbirds pick up local dialects. While they do learn songs from their fathers, young songbirds pick up whatever variations of a song exist in the area they settle in. If there is a song they haven’t heard before from another bird, they’ll use their father’s song, but otherwise the birds try to blend in with the locals.
Also of interest is the study of the three-wattled bellbird in the book. This bird is suboscince (or belonging to the Suborder Tyranni), a group of birds that sing, but are generally believed not to learn their songs from other birds. The problem is, however, that not many suboscinces have been studied, perhaps partly out of bias and partly because they are birds of the neotropics, and so very difficult to study. Still, we follow the author and Kroodsma as he tries to gather evidence for the hypothesis that the bellbirds are learning their songs, through the damp and difficult fieldwork to the rejection of the idea by others in the field. A cursory search on Google Scholar doesn’t turn up any papers from Kroodsma on the research he did, and the end of the book suggests that he is content to let others try to unravel the mystery of the South American bellbirds.
In any event, Birdsong is a wonderful book that looks at the way scientific studies are carried out, not just the end results. The only negative thing I have to say about it is that the author defers to Alan Feduccia when it comes to bird evolution, the dinosaur/bird link never mentioned in the book (we are presented with Archaeopteryx and the fact that “birds evolved from reptiles,” but the relationship with dinosaurs is not mentioned). Perhaps the author merely wanted to avoid controversy as ornithologists seem more apt to reject dinosaurs as ancestors to birds for some reason that I have been unable to understand. Still, the author doesn’t take sides on the issue, and this minor complaint is hardly central to the book at all.
So now I’m on to read Michael Novacek’s Time Traveler which I should be able to get through in an evening or two. After that I may try to finish up Hunt for the Dawn Monkey before moving on to The Third Chimpanzee and The Big Bang, but more books are due to arrive (like Last Chance to See) any time now, so I’m sure the end of this summer will be packed with reading. Just before school begins I’ll do an overview of what I’ve learned this summer, and take a picture of the looming stack of books I’ve read over the past few months.